Hobbits Plugin Development

The Hobbits framework is designed to coordinate the capabilities of various plugins into a smooth, cohesive experience. The plugins are where all of the "actual work" gets done.

There are currently four types of plugins in Hobbits: Displays, Analyzers, Operators, and Importer/Exporters. This document will cover general plugin implementation concepts, and then walk through the development process for each type of plugin.

Example Plugin Development Video

This video is out-of-date, but some of the concepts still apply.


General Terms and Concepts

Qt Plugin API

Hobbits leverages the low-level plugin API provided by Qt for its plugin system. Refer to the following Qt documentation for details:

Bit Containers

The BitContainer class is the primary means of storing data, and sharing it between plugins. A BitContainer holds binary data, as well as metadata such as how that data is framed. It also keeps a record of any changes that have been made to it by Hobbits plugins.

The binary data is held in a BitArray, which abstracts byte boundaries from the user, and has a modest-but-growing assortment of performance efficiencies and helper functions.

Metadata is stored in a BitInfo object which is read and written with the bitInfo and setBitInfo methods.

The framing of a bitstream is an important part of its metadata for display and processing purposes. The frames of a BitContainer can be set in the BitInfo::setFrames method.

General purpose metadata can be set with BitInfo::setMetadata and read with BitInfo::metadata. Plugins can use container metadata as a general purpose bus for communicating with other plugins, or even as a cache for their own purposes. For example, the "Find" Analyzer plugin stores the results of a find operation in a container's metadata so that when that container loses focus, the information will still be available when the container comes back into focus.

Highlights are a separate kind of metadata that deal with ranges of bits within a bit container. They are read and written with various functions including BitInfo::addHighlights and BitInfo::highlights , and they are stored as a map of strings to RangeHighlight lists. The "Find" Analyzer plugin sets highlights in the ranges where it finds its search string, and several Display plugins check for the existence and colors of RangeHighlights in order to render visual highlights across those ranges. Plugins like the Extractor operator use RangeHighlights for their processing.

Analyzer plugins do not have write access to bit containers, so they cannot edit the BitInfo directly. As a result, they must include a container's updated BitInfo in the AnalyzerResults that they return.

Parameters, Delegates, and Editors

Most plugins require customizable parameters in order to perform their function. The Parameters class is essentially a nullable QJsonObject, so it is fairly generic, and it is simple to serialize. Most plugins provide a ParameterDelegate that provides details and validation capabilities for the JSON parameters, and optionally provides an implementation of AbstractParameterEditor for editing the parameters in a GUI. For most plugins, it is best to follow the pattern used in the Qt Creator plugin templates that does the following:

  • Create Qt Designer Form class that implementes AbstractParameterEditor
  • Use a ParameterHelper to wrap each of the UI elements for easy Parameters getting and setting.
  • Emit AbstractParameterEditor's changed signal whenever the UI changes.
  • If the editor needs to react to or enrich BitContainer metadata, implement previewBitsUiImpl. previewBitsImpl can also be used for off-thread pre-processing before previewBitsUiImpl is called.
  • In the plugin implementation, create a list of ParameterInfos that describe the parameters.
  • In the plugin implementation, create the plugin's ParameterDelegate with ParameterDelegate::create using the ParameterInfo list, a std::function that describes the plugin operation based on some parameter set, and another std::function that returns the AbstractParameterEditor implementation. This is the ParameterDelegate that would then get returned in, for example, in AnalyzerInterface::parameterDelegate.

If a plugin takes no parameters the Parameters should be empty, but not null. Invalid/null parameters are created with Parameters::nullParameters and indicate that the parameters are not suitable for use. This null state can be checked with Parameters::isNull. This check is usually unneccessary within the plugin itself (a well-behaved plugin runner will not pass null parameters in), but a plugin can return null Parameters in its result if it wants to communicate that the action it just did can not/should not be repeated (i.e. it is somehow non-deterministic, or utilizes an unreliable external service.) A well-behaved runner will not create and run batches with plugin actions that return null Parameters.

Action Progress

The ActionProgress parameter is passed to some of the core plugin methods. It allows a plugin to report its percentage progress as it executes, and allows it to check if it has been cancelled so that it can halt execution gracefully. It is possible for this parameter to be null, so plugins should check for that.


Many of the main plugin methods will be executed on secondary threads, separate from the the main Qt GUI thread. In those methods, it is important to avoid using general Qt GUI functionality (e.g. creating a QMessageBox pop-up) or the application might crash horribly. Read more about threads and Qt here.

Common Plugin Methods

Hobbits plugins have a base abstract interface HobbitsPlugin with the following methods:

  • name returns a unique plugin name
  • description returns a description of the plugin
  • tags returns a list of categories that this plugin is affiliated with

There is also a common createDefaultX method (where X is the interface type) that simply returns a default instance of the plugin.

Specific Interfaces

Operator Interface

Operators take some number of data inputs, and produce some number of data outputs. Most operators are 1-in, 1-out, but the flexibility of the interface enables several critical operations (e.g. data generators, muxes, demuxes.) The output of operators will go into new containers so that the original data can still be easily referenced.

operateOnBits takes a list of read-only bit containers, Parameters, and an ActionProgress instance. It returns an OperatorResult which contains any new bit containers that have been created by the operator, and the Parameters that will enable the operation to be duplicated exactly. This method may be executed on a secondary thread (see threads guidance above)

getMinInputContainers and getMaxInputContainers return the minimum and maximum number of containers that the operator accepts as inputs. Operators that take a single input and produce a single output would simply return 1 for both of these functions.

Analyzer Interface

Analyzers digest and decorate the data in a way that facilitates follow-on processing and/or human evaluation.

analyzeBits takes a read-only bit container, Parameters, and an ActionProgress instance. It returns an AnalyzerResult which contains new general metadata and range entries for the container, and the Parameters that will enable the operation to be duplicated exactly. This method may be executed on a secondary thread (see threads guidance above)

Display Interface

Displays show the data in some sort of useful format (e.g. a bit raster, or a hex dump.) They can use metadata and highlights in bit containers to augment a depiction of the data, but they could also show only the metadata if that was useful somehow (e.g. if there were some metrics worth presenting separately from the plugin that generated them.)

renderConfig returns a DisplayRenderConfig that provides some basic guidance on how the display should be rendered, for example, whether or not it should be rendered asynchronously on a secondary thread.

setDisplayHandle is how the plugin receives the shared DisplayHandle which provides access to a variety of things that a display might need to access (e.g. the current bit container), or set (e.g. the bit that is currently being hovered over by the mouse.) It also lets the display set things like the currently displayed range of bits with DisplayHandle::setRenderedRange.

renderDisplay is the primary display rendering function that takes the a viewport size, Parameters, and an ActionProgress instance. It returns a DisplayResult which contains a QImage and the Parameters that will enable the operation to be duplicated exactly. This method may be executed on a secondary thread (see threads guidance above)

renderOverlay is similar to renderDisplay, but it does not receive an ActionProgress. An overlay is generally something that might get adjusted more frequently and separately from the main display, like a hover-over tooltip. It generally is not executed on a secondary thread, but it can be (for example in a DisplayPrinter exporter)

Import/Export Interface

Import/Export plugins import and/or export bit containers for use in Hobbits. A simple example of an ImporterExporter is the "File Data" plugin that imports/exports raw binary data from/to files.

canExport and canImport return a boolean value indicating whether or not the plugin is capable of importing or exporting (e.g. you might want a plugin that can import data but not export it.) You can return false in both methods, but that would be impolite.

importBits and exportBits both receive Parameters, and an ActionProgress instance.

exportBits also receives a bit container that should be exported. It returns an ExportResult with the Parameters that will enable the operation to be duplicated exactly.

importBits returns a non-empty bit container in its ImportResultif it was successful at importing data along with the Parameters.

Helpful Tools

In order to simplify the process of developing plugins, there are cookiecutters that take care of most of the boilerplate code.

Visit the GitHub repository for Hobbits plugin cookiecutters for a variety of useful cookiecutters and instructions for how to use them.

Get in touch

If you are having trouble making a plugin, or if you have a suggestion for the hobbits API or documentation please open an issue on the GitHub page or ask about it on the Discord channel